The Handmaid's Tale Unfit Review

June’s (Elisabeth Moss) quote, “It’s an acquired taste seeing others in pain,” sums up frequent reservations about the increasingly tortuous content of The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly in an age where bodily autonomy in the USA is more fraught. “Unfit” examines how pain can drive the heart to commit callousness. However, the episode is marred by the show’s white woman-centricity, with June (and her fellow white-dominated Handmaid sisters aside from Janine) tormenting a black female character of prominence, Ofmatthew/Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop) in this case. 

June Breaking in Morale

Drained of any will to see the good in oppressors, or those who consciously participate in oppression, June is feeding off the pain of others, after being forced to hang the Martha servant who cared for her daughter Hannah. She can’t be saddened for the death of Ofandy’s child–in the show’s first instance of an Unbaby from Margaret Atwood’s source material novel. She feels relief that a child didn’t have to be born in a cruel world. Chillingly she can’t even hug Ofandy with her other Handmaid sisters.

June instills vengeance on Ofmatthew for reporting the Martha and driving away Hannah’s forced-adoptive family. We’ve seen June forgo her independent spirit for a period, but we’ve never seen June intentionally wield the Gilead institution to wound a fellow sufferer. Aunt Lydia does her brainwashing to guilt-trip June for endangering Hannah and the Martha. What June does next is “WTF.” She confesses to Aunt Lydia she knew Ofmatthew entertained the subversive thought of not wanting her baby. This leads to Ofmatthew ceremonially being shamed and her breakdown.

It’s easy to see why June and the other Handmaids would shun Ofmatthew for her betrayal, but the disproportionate torment also makes it easy to pity Ofmatthew. The callousness is highlighted by the fact Ofmatthew is a fellow sufferer in a vulnerable position, which Janine (Madeline Brewer), another sympathetic obedient Handmaid, points out.

Aunt Lydia’s Origin Story

God bless Ann Dowd. Damn Aunt Lydia. Dowd looms monstrously in her terrorizing and her tenderness. Her burst of warmth comes as surprises, sometimes alluring some pity as June might allow for Serena Joy wasting away in Gilead. 

“Unfit” offers an origin story for Aunt Lydia and her commitment to her hyper-religious convictions. If you were to meet Lydia in the Before time when she didn’t slam her cattle prod against her charges’ bodies and coached victim-shaming, she was all surface-sweet personable. She was a fourth grade teacher who had her brushes with what she called sins. She tolerates a crass single mother she befriends before she betrays the mother. 

I’m not sure whether the character study felt too necessary as well as fitting to accompany June’s moral disintegration. But Dowd gives her character poignant tragedy, a matron “full of love to give” and even patience for lifestyles she disagrees with, but with a burgeoning twisted tough love that wrings the livelihoods of every person she tries to improve.

White Woman Centricity 

The treatment of Ofmatthew/Natalie is one egregious symptom of the Handmaid’s Tale writers unequipped to deal with race or work with the implications of a white woman like June tormenting a black woman and the depiction of a black woman supporting an oppressive system. (It’s other prominent black female character Moira is outside of the Gilead circle and her existence and more dignified character development does not offset that pairing the rebellious June with the submissive Natalie will end up creating thorny dynamics.)

Over Gilead files, Aunt Lydia utters a striking line, “They don’t want a handmaid of color.” So far, it’s the only verbal poke at the subject of racism in Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a line that says plenty about Gilead, maybe addressing white supremacy fuels the system too even if it isn’t as apparent as it was in Atwood’s book (where people of color are deported elsewhere). But it also conveniently doesn’t engage in the subject itself. It does not remedy the colorblindness and how much the White Woman Centricity haunted June’s narrative. Ofmatthew’s meekness and sanctimoniousness would have existed less problematically or her characterization handled with more tact, if tracing back to pre-production writing and casting, the showrunners engaged the subject of race in Gilead.

Ofmatthew’s Breakdown

At the market, June receives the devastating news that she is to be reassigned to another Commander, away from the safety of Commander Lawrence’s household. Then in a fit of madness, Ofmatthrew does something June wanted to do in the first episode: grab the gun off a Guardian. A final enigmatic understanding passes between the two clashing Handmaids through June’s final eye contact with Ofmatthew. Perhaps it was appropriate Ofmatthew concludes to aim the gun at the real culprit, Aunt Lydia, the enforcer who ordered her to betray a Handmaid. Poor Ofmatthew doesn’t get her shot at Aunt Lydia and ends up unconscious or possibly dead. Natalie deserved better.

Tidbits:

  • It took a second viewing for me to catch that Ofmatthew’s real name, Natalie, is uttered from Aunt Lydia’s lips.
  • Dowd’s expression flickers right when Lydia is asked if she has a girlfriend. It’s easy to read quiet offense, as if thinking, “She thinks I could be a gender traitor.” She’s tallying the woman’s sins in her head, all while savoring the genuine warmth between them.
  • “Word has gotten around about [Ofandy’s] failure [her stillborn birth] today” is chilling because the Aunts treat Ofandy with patronizing compassion while faulting her for not being an adequate baby vessel.
  • This may be due to my short medical knowledge or the show continually illustrating the poor healthcare system in Gilead, but I’m surprised there was no attempt to resuscitate Ofandy’s baby.
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